The Huffington Post, Oct. 7, 2017 - The Trump White House has been a purveyor of very well-founded criticism of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Countering the narrative about the agreement curtailing progress toward a nuclear weapon, administration officials contend that the JCPOA actually paves Iran’s way toward becoming a nuclear power.
But this is not the sole or even the primary focus of the criticism, nor should it be. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have instead focused on the broader intentions behind the JCPOA, as outlined in its preamble, which states that the signatories “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.”
Nearly 22 months after the deal was implemented, this has not come to pass. Quite the contrary, the Islamic Republic of Iran has only been emboldened in areas far beyond the nuclear sphere by newfound sanctions relief and a softening of European attitudes.
Those broader activities have apparently fortified the Trump administration’s argument in favor of decertifying Iranian compliance, which the president may do this week on October 12th. Trump has repeatedly emphasized that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the nuclear deal, meaning that persisting provocative and destabilizing activities have undermined global peace and security, instead of contributing to it.
The JCPOA’s preamble aside, the congressional ratification also stipulates that the President must certify not only that Iran is fulfilling its basic obligations, but also that the continued suspension of nuclear-related sanctions is in the vital national security interest of the United States. This is a difficult argument to make, and it is getting more difficult all the time, as the wealth Tehran has accumulated from sanctions relief and newly expanded oil exports continues to be overwhelmingly dedicated to a military buildup and the expansion of Iran’s regional interference.
Each time the US has sought to constrain Iran’s provocative activities, Iran’s ruling clerics has responded with defiance. When President Trump signed into law a new sanctions package targeting terrorist sponsorship, cybersecurity threats, and ballistic missile activity, the Iranian parliament immediately responded by dedicating hundreds of millions of dollars to the country’s ballistic missile program and Quds Force, the special operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
According to Iran’s own state outlet, Press TV, the following month in September, Iranian leaders paraded a new ballistic missile during Defense Week, claiming that it was capable of carrying multiple warheads over a distance of more than 1,200 miles. This was paired with footage on Iranian state television of a supposed test launch. And although it was later revealed that that footage was several months old and depicted a launch that was ultimately unsuccessful, the fact remains that Tehran appears plainly committed to developing nuclear capable missiles.
The only way the JCPOA could have improved international peace and security is if Iran’s acceptance of it had been accompanied by actual change in Tehran’s regional ambitions and behavior. It did not, and there is no reason to believe that such change will emerge over time.
One chief criticism of the JCPOA is that it allows Iran to continue relevant research and development – some of it openly and some of it clandestinely in places not immediately accessible to international inspectors. This could leave the Islamic Republic poised to sprint toward nuclear weapons capability as soon as the deal expires or is broken. Meanwhile, the ongoing missile program provides an essential foundation for weaponization.
In September, an NGO called the International Committee in Search of Justice published a report, detailing the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program. Drawing upon intelligence gathered by the Iranian opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, it pointed out that the institutions associated with weaponization appear to remain fully functional.
The bottom line of that report, and of much of the well-founded criticism of the JCPOA, is that the nuclear agreement has not resolved the issue of Iran’s past and potentially future nuclear weapons work. Furthermore, the nature of the Islamic Republic is such that even if its nuclear projects are delayed, the fact remains that a more broadly assertive global policy would be needed to actually achieve the JCPOA’s goal of making Iran “positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.”
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, Contributor
President of the International American Council and Board Member of the US-Middle East Chamber of Business and Commerce and Harvard IR.